I love the guy. You love the guy. We all do.
He's just about one of the nicest, most approachable and loyal Cleveland athletes to grace our city with his presence in decades — and he had a pretty doggone nice career, to boot.
But come on.
As easy as it was to cheer for the lovable 7-foot-3 Lithuanian whenever he took the floor for the wine and gold in an improbable 12-year Cleveland career, it's not nearly as easy to sign off on the honor the Cavaliers will bestow upon Zydrunas Ilgauskas on March 8.
To be truthful, the raising of yet another Cavaliers jersey to the rafters at Quicken Loans Arena feels almost like desperation. That's what this whole thing smells like. Desperation. And not just from our beloved Cavaliers, but from the entire Cleveland sports community.
A franchise that has never won a league championship, and that has appeared in only a single championship series, is about to retire its seventh uniform number in a city that hasn't held a championship parade in 50 years.
That's not to say that a player must win a championship to have his number retired, especially if that player was a truly transcendent presence during his time in his league. In this case, however, Big Z was neither a champion nor transcendent. He was a good big man, a solid contributor, and a tremendous teammate and role model.
But at the end of the day, he was 13 and 7. That's it.
He was 13, as in career points per game, and 7, as in rebounds.
Are 13 and 7 nice career numbers? Sure they are. But unless they were major contributors to an NBA championship, they are not jersey-retirement numbers. Not many are.
Retiring a jersey number is an honor that I believe is second only to landing a spot in the Hall of Fame. To retire a jersey number is to restrict its use by any other player for all eternity, to protect its legacy and the memory of the iconic man who wore it and carried it to historic heights. And as wonderful a man Big Z was as a player, and remains as a front office executive, those heights weren't high enough for this honor.
No, this decision to raise No. 11 to the roof at The Q smells like one franchise's attempt to find something to celebrate — anything — in a city that just doesn't seem destined to ever hold one of those parades. It almost feels like we're reaching, as a city; like we're so desperate to celebrate something, that we will celebrate nearly anything.
That feeling is especially true when it comes to the Cavs, who have already hoisted the jerseys of Austin Carr, Bingo Smith, Nate Thurmond, Mark Price, Brad Daugherty and Larry Nance. If an outsider who knew nothing of NBA history were to enter The Q and see that many numbers hanging from on high, certainly his next move would be to scan the ceiling in search of the championship banners that must accompany them.
He would still be searching.
With no disrespect intended to any of those previously honored by the Cavaliers, who just happen to be some of the most popular players in franchise history, I say once again: Come on.
Price, Daugherty and Nance were certainly the most important components of some very good Cavalier teams; teams that might have been championship-caliber had they not crossed career paths with Michael Jordan and the rise of the Bulls. They are celebrated appropriately in Cleveland, but are any of them ever brought up in Hall of Fame discussions? Included in conversations about all-time NBA greats?
Not any that I've heard of.
Thurmond is the most glaring example of a franchise reaching for something to celebrate. Big Nate was a Hall of Fame player in a glorious career with the Warriors. As a Cavalier, however, he played two seasons. He played 65 games in one of them, 49 in the other, and he averaged five points per game. And then we strung up his jersey number for it.
And yes, we're all well aware of the things a player can do that don't show up in box scores, and Thurmond was a big part of the Miracle of Richfield team as an emotional leader and veteran presence. But are emotion and leadership in one magical season enough to warrant the ultimate honor of jersey retirement?
The night of March 8 will be a very special night for Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who is indeed a very special man, and we should congratulate him for the honor he will receive.
But while we applaud the moment for Big Z, let's also hope that our franchises take caution when considering such honors for players in the future, so that they never become cheapened by the desire for that eternally elusive reason to celebrate bigger things.